For First Time in History, Metropolitan Opera Performing Work of a Black Composer


For First Time in History, Metropolitan Opera Performing Work of a Black Composer
Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Opera’s season opened on Monday, Sept. 27, and for the first time in its 138-year history, it will perform an opera by a Black composer.

The staging of Fire Shut Up in My Bones will mark a return to normalcy for the Met, which hasn’t had an opera performance in its house in 18 months. Charles Blow, whose book is the source material for the opera, is excited about the occasion and plans to be in the audience when the show opens.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones will be composed and scored by award-winning jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard. “Of course you’re filled with pride to be labeled with that,” Blanchard said after last week’s rehearsal. “But there’s a certain sense of, not guilt, but sorrow, because I know I’m not the first who was qualified.”

In his book, Blow, now 51, writes about his upbringing as a shy, sensitive child of poverty in rural Louisiana with four macho older brothers, a philandering drunk for a father, and a warm-hearted, hard-working mother who carried a gun in her purse.

“I knew a lot about being isolated and different in your own community growing up,” said Blanchard, who was born in New Orleans. “I wanted to be a musician and would walk to the bus stop on the weekends, carrying my horn and wearing glasses while the other boys were playing football in the street. That was not a popular look.”

Kasi Lemmons, celebrated filmmaker and Blanchard’s frequent collaborator, helped to write the opera libretto, which was on her “bucket list” of things she hoped someday to accomplish.

“I didn’t know what the process normally was,” Lemmons said. “I didn’t even know the libretto went first. I thought maybe the music came first.”
Nervous about how Blow might react to some of her inventions, Blanchard set it to music and infused it with his patented jazz rhythms and lyrical passages.

Fire Shut Up in My Bones is co-directed by OTSL artistic director James Robinson and Camille A. Brown, who is the first Black director on the Met’s main stage.

Yannick Nezet-Seguin leads a cast that stars baritone Will Liverman as the adult Charles, soprano Latonia Moore as his mother, and soprano Angel Blue as Destiny, Loneliness, and his girlfriend Greta.

There will be eight performances, with the final one running on Saturday, Oct. 23, and will be shown live in HD in movie theaters worldwide.

Lemmons and Blanchard both hope that audiences can see past the trauma Blow endured as a youngster and draw strength and inspiration from his story.

“The mere fact that Charles is such a success in his life indicates how much he overcame,” Blanchard said.

“Hopefully some young kid coming to this opera will see that. Hopefully, it can really change some people’s lives.”


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